St. Paul City Council poised to approve two sizable parks projects — a playground and sculpture garden — by Allianz Field

Following a financial boost from Dr. Bill McGuire’s family foundation and other philanthropic partners, initial work could begin as early as next week on a sizable new playground bordering Allianz Field, as well as a 1-acre sculpture garden anchoring the intersection of Snelling and University avenues.

The St. Paul City Council is poised to approve two agreements for some $10 million in privately-owned and privately-managed public parklands by the professional soccer stadium that hosts the Minnesota United soccer team in the city’s Midway neighborhood.

Mike Hahm, a private consultant on the parks projects, said the development team was not yet ready to release renderings of the park sculpture or sculptures, but he said the garden would be constructed around “a very prominent piece of public art.”

McGuire’s family foundation also established the 7.5-acre Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis, a celebrated urban parks oasis that is now funded and maintained by its own conservancy.

The city council on Wednesday will vote on the agreements with MUSC Holdings, the soccer team’s parent company, and Snelling-Midway Redevelopment LLC. McGuire, the former chief executive officer of UnitedHealth Group, is the lead owner of the team and the managing partner of the real estate development partnership that is seeking to construct new office, hotel and restaurant space within the former footprint of the Midway Shopping Center, which has been cleared of small businesses and now stands near vacant.

Before the private development moves forward, the partners plan to spruce up the area with two new parks offerings satisfying the city’s parkland dedication requirements, which are parks investments triggered by new real estate development.

Universal accessibility and a giant loon?

A first-of-its-kind playground for the city spanning 0.35 acres would be installed immediately to the east of Allianz Field on Simpson Street between Central and Shields avenues.

The playground, designed by Landscape Structures of Delano and spanning 25 structures and activities and four shade areas, would be built on the concept of universal accessibility, or easy access for the disabled, Hahm said. A similar playground opened in Woodbury.

Dr. Bill McGuire’s family foundation plans a state-of-the-art new playground on 0.35 acres of land just to the east of Allianz Field in St. Paul, the home of Minnesota United, on Simpson Street between Central and Shields avenues. Designed by Landscape Structures of Delano, the playground would offer 25 activities or play structures. It will be privately owned and managed but open to the public under what’s known as a P.O.P.S., or privately owned public space agreement. (Courtesy of Playground Structures)

A separate 19-page agreement surrounding the 1-acre sculpture garden maintains that Snelling-Midway Redevelopment will “create a plaza for an iconic sculpture and gateway to United Village and Allianz Field as an inviting destination available to the public year around. … Reinforce that the purpose of the Park is for the use and enjoyment of the public. … Provide vibrant green space for the neighborhoods around the United Village development to support the physical, economic, environmental and social health within the community.”

At least one neighborhood resident who has met personally with McGuire said he’s been shown the image of a giant loon statue.

The agreement spells out that if the “large iconic sculpture” ever perches in a new location, so could the garden, though it would remain within the development.

The agreement states: “The parties acknowledge that SMR has arranged to install a large iconic sculpture (the ‘Sculpture’) as the centerpiece of the Sculpture Plaza and that the Sculpture is on loan from a private party. In the event the owner of the Sculpture decides to remove the Sculpture from the Sculpture Plaza, SMR may propose that other land within United Village be substituted for the Sculpture Plaza, to satisfy the park dedication requirements for United Village.”

For the parks projects, the city council received letters of support from the Sanneh Foundation, the Midway Chamber of Commerce and Joe Hughes, a commercial real estate investor and residential landlord who sits on the Union Park District Council’s Committee for Land Use and Economic Development.

Benefit of P.O.P.S. parks

The possibility of “privately owned public space,” or POPS arrangements were contemplated for the Midway as far back as 2014, when the Trust for Public Land published its 34-page “Greening the Green Line” report.

The study found that while St. Paul and Minneapolis each consist of about 15% parkland, the area immediately surrounding the Green Line at the time was just 4.7% parkland, a number that they feared could decline if new real estate rolls in without further parks investments.

Hahm noted that the benefit to the city is that the developer or property owner is heavily invested in the outcome for the life of the park. In this case, the total combined acreage within the Snelling-Midway development will exceed what’s mandated under the city’s parkland dedication requirement.

“The city’s parks department isn’t burdened with maintaining it,” Hahm said. “The benefit to the developer or landowner is they get a bit more quality control, and control of what’s going on around them. For the developer, it’s also a chance to do more. It’s a great way to get something like this without it coming at the expense of other stuff within the city’s overall parks portfolio.”

“It’s pretty much for perpetuity,” added Hahm, who is a former director of Parks and Recreation for the city. “If the public use goes away, the land or considerations need to go to the public. It’s pretty much a commitment that should live the life of the land or the development.”

Hahm said environmental clean-up contracts are “executed and ready to go,” and work could begin as early as next week. The goal is to install concrete footings in what remains of this construction season, so playground and sculpture park equipment can roll in after the snow melts next year.

Additional real estate development is still away off. “We don’t have financing and site plans for (the hotel and office) yet,” Hahm said.

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